Diversity & Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action – Is It Still Necessary?
As a diversity consultant retained by public- and private-sector organizations, I am often asked “Is affirmative action still necessary?” There seems to be a general expectation that I will say no. When I respond with “yes,” there is a pause followed by something like this; “If affirmative action is necessary, why do we need diversity?” Without hesitation I seize the opportunity to discuss that for now it's affirmative action and diversity not affirmative action or diversity.
What does affirmative action do that diversity does not? Briefly, affirmative action is reactive for addressing workplace parity whereas diversity takes a proactive approach. Affirmative action helps mitigate the historical effects of institutional racism and counters the effects of current discrimination, whether it's intentional or not. The two operate on parallel tracks—diversity activities are often done to support the goals of affirmative action and affirmative action can be the catalyst for launching a diversity and inclusion initiative.
|Affirmative Action||Optimizing Diversity|
|Legally driven||Productivity driven|
|Problem focused||Opportunity focused|
Affirmative action was established to fight racial discrimination. The federal government mandated affirmative action programs to redress racial inequality and injustice in a series of steps beginning with an executive order issued by President Kennedy in 1961. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination illegal and established equal employment opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, cultural background, color or religion. Subsequent executive orders, in particular Executive Order 11246 issued by President Johnson in September 1965, mandated affirmative action goals for all federally funded programs. In 1967, Johnson expanded the executive order to include affirmative action requirements to benefit women. While brought on as a result of executive orders, affirmative action's development was influenced by legislation, consent decrees stemming from government investigations, court-ordered remedies, voluntary action by corporations and legal filings by impacted groups.
“Affirmative action” means many different things to many people. This includes outreach to broaden the pool of eligible individuals to include more members of specific groups; targeted or compensatory training to upgrade the qualifications of individuals in these groups; goals and timetables to measure progress; preferences; set-asides; and compensation adjustment.
One of the major arguments against affirmative action is that it sets “quotas,” and unqualified minorities and women are often hired or promoted. While in fact, quotas are not required. What is required is that organizations make a “good-faith effort” to reach their hiring and promotional goals. And, under the law as written and interpreted by the courts, anyone benefiting from affirmative action must have relevant and valid job or educational qualifications.
As a former employment manager for a major corporation, I had the responsibility of preparing affirmative action plans and monitoring hiring and promotional activities. I routinely sat in on selection processes to make sure that a cross section of candidates was available and considered for open positions. When a candidate was hired or promoted, the hiring manager provided justification for his or her decision based on a set of criteria that all successful candidates had to meet. Was the system foolproof? No, of course not. There were times when the justification was questionable. During such times, the employment action was put on hold until sufficient justification could be produced or even delayed until a qualified candidate pool was established. After truly making a “good-faith effort,” a decision was then made to select the candidate that best fit the needs of the organization. When a situation such as this occurs, it generally signals a need for additional training of the personnel involved in the selection process and closer monitoring of the department's personnel practices.
Who benefits from affirmative action? Beneficiaries of these programs have included white men and women, people with disabilities, veterans, the poor, as well as working class people. However, the primary emphasis has been on addressing racial discrimination. Let's look at two examples of how someone might benefit.
Example one: Clara has been a top performer at XYZ Manufacturing for many years. She performs her job as well as the men but has not been promoted to a supervisor position while many of her male co-workers have. In XYZ Manufacturing's affirmative action plan, it clearly shows that women are underutilized. A goal then would be for XYZ to take an “affirmative action” by promoting a qualified female, Clara, into the next available supervisor opening.
Example two: The company where Sam, a Vietnam veteran, worked moved its facilities offshore, thereby eliminating Sam's job. However, a company that produces a similar product has an open position for which Sam is qualified. There are three other candidates similarly qualified who are not Vietnam veterans. An “affirmative action preference” is shown when the company selects Sam because of the veteran status.
Example three: Carl, an African-American, was recently selected to be the manager of the distribution center of More Products, Inc. He has no experience in distribution with More Products but has over 10 years marketing experience with the firm. Currently there are no African-Americans at the management level for which he is being considered. He competed with six other candidates, both males and females, who were not African-American and who were similarly qualified and had multiple years of experience in distribution. More Products' preference was for Carl because of its commitment to affirmative action—and also because of his knowledge of a complementary segment of the business.
Example three is where questions often arise. Many would say, without fully understanding what the basis for the selection was, that the most qualified person was not selected. And, that the only reason why Carl was selected was because he was African-American. As you can see, this was not the case. However, many will walk away making the statements to the contrary and others will echo those sentiments.
In each of the examples, I tried to illustrate the role affirmation action plays. There are countless real-life examples where affirmative action plays a similar role.
Now, let's turn our attention to diversity. Diversity, and in particular optimizing diversity, is a relatively new concept. In its early years companies saw it as race and gender focused. Many are now beginning to recognize it as having a much broader focus such as its implication for leadership, maximizing employee performance and innovation—all of which contribute to the bottom line. It requires the creation of an open, supportive and responsive organization in which differences are accepted, valued and managed—a model work environment (MWE). Creating that atmosphere is the responsibility of the leadership, and thereafter modeled by everyone in it.
Optimizing diversity means the management of a group of people with differences so that individuals in a given environment perform at their maximum potential for the achievement of organizational and personal goals by using their unique skills, competencies and talents. Since the current workforce is already demographically diverse, leadership and management techniques of inclusion are imperative. To fully appreciate this approach we begin our discussion by looking at the two foundational dimensions of diversity—primary and secondary.
Primary dimensions are those characteristics that everyone is born with, that are visible and for the most part fairly easy to identify. They include age, gender, race, ethnicity, physical ability, physical characteristics and sexual orientation (which can also be a secondary characteristic). Primary dimensions often include how we identify others and ourselves.
Secondary dimensions are differences or characteristics that we acquire, change or discard throughout our lives. They distinguish us from the people who possess a different worldview. These might include education, work experience, income, military experience, religious beliefs, geographic location, parental status and marital status.
These dimensions, without realizing it, can impact the way we interact with others. For example, most job opportunities are heard about through informal networks of friends, family and neighbors that I refer to as the “circle of information.” In the mainstream work environment, people of color and, if it's a male-dominated occupation, women are left out of the circle. Their access for jobs, advancement opportunities, scholarships and training programs then are severely impacted—partly because of the primary dimensions. When the concept of optimizing diversity is understood and practiced, these dimensions become less of an influencing factor.
Looking back at the affirmative action examples discussed in the previous sections, what role could optimizing diversity have played?
First, in examples one and three, the work environment had not evolved to the point where it valued the unique skills and abilities of its entire workforce. It probably operated on stereotypes that had been perpetuated over the years.
In example two, Sam (short for Samantha) met all of the qualifications. Optimizing diversity would reinforce the values held by this organization. Does knowing that Sam is female change your opinion about the action taken?
When in pursuit of optimizing diversity, you are willing to explore and determine the source of the stereotype and how it was formed. You question the source of your information about a particular group or culture. What were the influencing factors; parental, family, childhood/adult experiences, friends or co-workers? Are those sources or experiences reliable? Have they been proven across the group or culture or do they only apply to certain individuals.
Within the workplace, organizations have a responsibility to make the changes necessary to enhance working relationships, improve service delivery and foster inclusion of all people. Diversity is not a problem to be managed, as some would see it, but rather an opportunity to develop greater personal and organizational effectiveness. But it is managers themselves who must decide how to accommodate and optimize the real differences among the members of their organizations.
I admit, affirmative action is not a cure-all. It will not eliminate racial discrimination and the covert ways in which it manifests itself, nor will it eliminate competition for scarce resources. However, affirmative action can ensure that everyone has a fair chance at what is available.
Optimizing diversity can create the environment that fosters a genuine willingness to do so. Will there come a time when affirmative action is no longer necessary? Of course! However, the time is not now. There's much to be done in overcoming barriers and disparities and the various forms they take. What we have, though, is a great opportunity to take advantage of two separate but powerful tools for creating a workplace where we can all excel. Let's make progress by using them—not regress by putting one of them away.
Article by Hank Clemons, Ph.D., is a diversity consultant, trainer and speaker whose firm, The HLC Group, Inc article from http://www.shrm.org/diversity/library_published/nonIC/CMS_012385.asp